There are more captive tigers living in American backyards than there are in the wild. (This tiger was photographed in captivity.) ©John T. Andrews

On Tuesday, September 16, 2014, 13 countries that have wild tiger populations agreed to take part in a global census of the endangered big cats. The hope is that this count will then lead to improved policies to protect them in order to meet a goal of doubling their numbers by 2022—a plan known as Tx2.

The 13 “tiger countries” are: Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Cambodia, India (where half of all wild tigers live), Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam. The estimate for tigers remaining in the wild is 3,200, a number that was last agreed upon in 2010.

Shockingly, there are more captive tigers living in American backyards, and most of those are privately owned.

In Southeast Asia, the human population is exploding. Will there be room for tigers? ©Drew Hamilton

Despite the fact that since 2010 we’ve thought there are only about 3,000 wild tigers left in the world, their numbers have continued to plummet. Will a new count do anything to help save them?

Poaching and power plants

The pledge to count the world’s tigers by 2016 was made at a conference in September in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Experts say that although the tiger population is thought to have remained stable over the last four years, the guesstimate of 3,200 is hindering efforts to create effective strategies for protecting the animals and that updated, science-based data is needed.

A century ago, the world had 100,000 tigers roaming through 30 nations, from Turkey east to Siberia and throughout Southeast Asia down to the tip of Indonesia. But human encroachment on the cats’ habitat and poaching for the illegal wildlife trade are blamed for tiger declines. Forested habitat, even within protected areas for tigers, has diminished over the last 10 years. In Bangladesh, experts fear a giant, 1,320-watt, coal-fired power plant on the edge of the Sundarbans mangrove forest—the world’s biggest and home to one of the largest tiger populations—will pollute the water, threatening the cats’ ability to thrive there. And while tiger populations have risen in certain major “tiger range” nations—such as India, Nepal and Russia—poaching continues to be a major problem. Statistics from TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade-monitoring network, show that at least 1,590 tigers—an average of two a week—were seized between January 2000 and April 2014.

Threats to zebras include habitat loss, climate change and hunting. ©Eric Rock

In the end, will counting tigers count?

Counting the number of animals left in any population or species, of course, is a tried-and-true conservation tool. After all, we don’t know if an animal is endangered unless we have the low numbers to prove it. Conversely, we wouldn’t know when to take a species off an endangered list when it recovers if we don’t count the number of individuals.

But we seem to have an obsession with counting animals lately, and I’m not sure it has done anything to curb our astonishing loss of wildlife. For example, every year since 1900, there has been an Audubon Christmas Bird Count, yet some once-widespread species in North America have decreased in number as much as 80 percent since 1967. In Kenya, Grevy’s zebras were counted in 2008 and again in 2012. In 2008, there were 2,450 of the zebras. In 2012, that number was 2,647; not much of a jump and certainly dramatically less than the estimated 15,000 in the 1970s. None of these counts has seemed to stem the tide of rampant loss.

The good news is that tigers are resilient. They were nearly wiped out 74,000 years ago when a supervolcano eruption at Sumatra’s Lake Toba sent the planet into a volcanic winter, erasing scores of Asian mammals. Tigers came back from just a few individuals to repopulate the continent. An average female can rear six to eight cubs over her 10- to 12-year lifespan; so if the cats, their prey and their habitats are given protection, there’s hope that they’ll bounce back.


The good news is that history has shown that tigers can be resilient. But will they be, again?

If the 2016 tiger count shows that there are less than the 3,200 wild tigers in the world that we now think there are, will anything change for the big cats? I just hope that the little more than 3,000 that are here now can hang on for two more years, when even more proof—evidence that we seem to need in order to implement better and stricter protections for the cats—arrives.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,